Prelude: Human Messengers
Allah, in His wisdom and mercy, sent us messengers to direct us to what is beneficial. These messengers were men at various times and in various communities whom Allah inspired with guidance for their people. It is a blessing that they were human beings, like us, such that people could relate to them and interact with them. If the prophets and messengers had instead been angels (see: Qur’an, 6:9, 17:95), the same benefit could not have been accomplished.
“Certainly did Allah confer [great] favor upon the believers when He sent among them a Messenger from themselves, reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom, although they had been before in manifest error.” [Qur’an, 3:164]
Messengers direct us to what is beneficial, remind us, and provide a basis for regulating public life. They convey and explain, guide and warn, and typically also cultivate and lead a society. (Q[4:165]) One who wishes to draw nearer to Allah should therefore follow the prophets and those who emulate their way. In general, all the messengers are examples for us to follow:
“They (the prophets) are those whom Allah has guided, so follow their guidance.” [Qur’an, 6:91]
The Final Messenger, Muhammad (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), is especially a role model for us, since he is the prophet sent for this era, and his teachings and example are more accessible to us.
“Indeed, there is an excellent example for you in the Messenger of Allah, for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last day, and who remembers Allah much.” [Qur’an, 33:21]
Prophethood is a selection by Allah.
“Allah chooses messengers from among the angels and from among mankind.” [Qur’an, 22:75]
The messengers (and similarly the prophets in general) are thus specially blessed human beings, worthy of our respect and honor. It is important to stress, however, that they remain human, and do not have any share in divinity, nor in controlling the affairs of the universe. They are not worthy of worship, nor did any of them call upon people to worship them. They intercede before Allah only with His permission.
Difference between a nabiyy and a rasool
Although the terms prophet (nabiyy) and messenger (rasul) are often used interchangeably, it is generally accepted that there is a subtle distinction between the two. There are various views as to how precisely the two differ. The favored opinion is that a nabiyy (prophet) is man who has received inspiration from Allah.
“And We have not sent before you (any) but men to whom We gave inspiration.” [Qur’an, 21:7] He is, in addition, a rasul (messenger) if he received at least one ruling which was different from the shari`ah (law) of the prophet before him.
“(Jesus said,) (I have come to you) confirming that which came before me of the Torah, and in order to make lawful for you some of that which was forbidden for you.” [Qur’an, 3:50] Thus, Jesus (peace be upon him) was a rasul as well as a nabiyy.
No Distinction Between the Prophets
All the prophets and messengers were supported by signs and miracles from Allah, and it is a requirement of faith to accept every one of them, and to believe that they were following the clear truth. This is the meaning of saying that we make no distinction between the prophets, i.e. we make no distinction in believing in them. We do not accept some prophets and reject others. It is not reasonable for a person to claim to love God, and then reject one of God’s messengers, or claim not to care whether God has sent a specific message. So, anyone who rejects, for example, any one of Adam, or Noah, or Moses, or Jesus, or Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon them all), is a disbeliever, though he may claim to believe in God and in the other prophets.
“Verily, those who disbelieve in Allah and His Messengers, seeking to make a distinction between (believing in) Allah and (believing in) His Messengers, saying, ‘We believe in some and reject others,’ seeking to take a path between (belief and rejection) – they are truly disbelievers. And We have prepared for the disbelievers a disgraceful punishment.” [Qur’an, 4:150-151]
However, making no distinction between belief in the prophets does not mean that they are all equal in rank, and the Qur’an itself is clear about this.
“Those are the messengers, We have caused some of them to excel over others. Among them are those to whom Allah spoke, and He raised some of them by ranks. We gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear proofs, and supported him with the Holy Spirit.” [Qur’an, 2:253]
“And indeed, We have caused some prophets to excel over others, and We gave David the Zaboor.” [Qur’an, 17:54]
The Final Prophet, Muhammad, (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), has numerous excellences and virtues over the rest of creation, such as the universality of his message, and his being granted the unique privilege to perform the initial intercession on the Day of Judgment (as we discuss later). Thus, he is the Master of the Children of Adam on the Day of Judgment [Tirmidhi]. Also of high stature are Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Noah (peace be upon them). Some people refer to these five prophets as “The Resolute Ones” (Ulul-`Azm). Although distinctions exist between the ranks of the prophets, we should not single out any two prophets to say that one is better than the other. Although that may in fact be the case, it is disrespectful to the prophet of lower rank. The Prophet has said, “Do not make preferences amongst the prophets of Allah…” [Bukhari]
Furthermore, each prophet typically possesses some unique distinction that should be appreciated. The following hadith conveys this, as well as the humility and comradeship of the Prophet Muhammad with the rest of his Prophetic brethren:
“We are more liable to doubt than Abraham when he said, (translated), “My Lord! Show me how you give life to the dead….” [Q, 2:260] And may Allah grant mercy to Lot! Surely, he used to lean on a powerful support. And I were to stay in prison for the length of time Joseph remained, I would have responded to the summoner [and taken freedom without having insisted on clearing the charge against me.]” [Bukhari]
On another occasion, he was addressed: “O best of creatures!” but responded: “That is Abraham (peace be upon him).” [Muslim]
When asked, “Who is the most honorable of people?” He said, “Joseph, the Prophet of Allah, son of the Prophet of Allah, son of the Friend of Allah.” [Bukhari]
Peace and blessings be upon all the Prophets of Allah.
How many prophets?
We are not certain of the exact number of prophets that Allah sent to mankind over history. The Qur’an tells us that there were “messengers whom We have mentioned to you before, and messengers whom We have not mentioned to you.” [Qur’an, 4:164]
We are also told that every major nation received a prophet at some point in history.
“There is no nation except that a warner has passed “ [Qur’an, 35:24]
We therefore believe, in general terms, in all of these prophets. As far as specific individuals in the past (such as founders of various religious communities), we typically cannot be sure as to whether they were prophets, unless they are specifically named as such in the Qur’an or authentic sayings of the Prophet. While it is possible that some of them were prophets, others might have been pious men, social reformers or charismatic leaders who did not receive direct revelation from Allah.
In addition the general belief outlined above, it is obligatory to uphold a specific belief in those prophets who are mentioned by name in the Qur’an, and whom the scholars unanimously agree were prophets. They are the following twenty-five:
- Adam (Adam)
- Nuh (Noah)
- Hood (sent to the ancient Arabian people of `Aad)
- Salih (sent to the ancient Arabian people of Thamud)
- Ibrahim (Abraham)
- Lut (Lot)
- Isma`il (Ishmael)
- Is-haq (Isaac)
10. Ya`qub (Jacob) also known as Isra’il (Israel), the son of Is-haq
11. Yusuf (Joseph) son of Ya`qub
12. Ayyub (Job)
13. Shu`ayb (sent to the ancient Arabian people of Madyan)
14. Musa (Moses)
15. Harun (Aaron) the brother of Musa
16. Dhul-Kifl (whom some have identified with Ezekiel)
17. Dawud (David)
18. Sulayman (Solomon) the son of Dawud
20. Ilyas (Elias)
21. Yunus (Jonah)
22. Zakariyya (Zachariah)
23. Yahya (John) son of Zakariyya
24. `Isa, (Jesus), who bears the title al-Maseeh (The Messiah)
25. Muhammad (may Allah bless them all and grant them peace)
There are some other individuals about whom scholars have differed as to whether they were prophets or just pious men; most prominent among them are:
- `Uzayr (whom some have identified with Azariah, or possibly Enoch)
- the mysterious companion of Moses [Qur’an, 18:65-82], whose name, Al-Khadir, is mentioned in hadiths.
Characteristics of the Prophets
From the information found in the Qur’an about the prophets, in conjunction with rational reasoning, we can infer that all prophets of Allah share the following attributes:
Prophets always tell the truth. They do not lie, because this would make them unreliable as transmitters of a message. As for the ahadith informing us Prophet Abraham told three lies, these can be understood by examining them in their proper context. The first ‘lie’ was when his people asked him to come with them to their festival of idol-worship, and he refused. “He took a glance at the stars, and then said, ‘I am sick.'” [Qur’an, 37:88-89] This was not strictly a lie; rather it was a half-truth. It can be understood as meaning, ‘I am sick at your worshipping inanimate, useless stones, rather than the Creator of these magnificent heavens.’ The second ‘lie’ was after he smashed all of his people’s idols except the biggest of them, whereupon his people asked him, “‘Have you done this to our gods, O Abraham?’ He said, ‘In fact, this, the biggest of them has done it.'” Again, this is a clever use of words. The biggest idol was, in a sense, responsible for the smashing of the others, because it had infuriated Abraham (peace be upon him), and by these words, he led his people to reflect over the folly and worthlessness of their religion. The third ‘lie’ is mentioned in a hadith, and it is that Abraham (peace be upon him) was asked about his wife, Sarah, (peace be upon her) by an evil king, and he replied, “She is my sister,” meaning ‘sister in faith.’ So, the ‘lies’ uttered by Abraham (peace be upon him) were not real lies, but half-truths uttered in very specific circumstances, and this is permissible if there is a good reason for it.
2. Impeccability / Sinlessness
What exactly does it mean for the Prophets to have been sinless? Only Allah is characterized by complete perfection. However, the Prophets are immune from erring in conveying the message. They are also protected against shameful deeds that would cause them to lose credibility in people’s eyes, because in that case they could not fulfill their role of effectively conveying the message. The Prophets are presented to mankind as role models (Qur’an, 6:91), and they would not be suitable role models if they sinned deliberately. If it were conceivable for them to deliberately commit serious acts of disobedience, it may be imagined to be permissible for us to do likewise, which is clearly absurd. “Say, ‘Allah does not command shamefulness.'” [Qur’an, 7:28] Those incidents that, on the surface may seem to suggest that some of the prophets sinned, can often be interpreted in relative terms. Something that is praiseworthy for a wicked sinner might be blameworthy for a very pious person, because they are at different levels. Thus, although the prophets did not deliberately sin, it is conceivable for them to have done something that, although permissible, was not the most optimal deed for the situation. It is also conceivable for them to have unintentionally committed mistakes or minor sins.
Clarification of the ‘Sin’ of Adam and Eve
Adam (peace and blessings be upon him) did disobey by eating from the tree but he did so out of forgetfulness ([Qur’an 20:115]). Satan deceived him by swearing a false oath in the name of Allah. [Qur’an, 7:21] Forgetfulness waives guilt. Outwardly, the deed was still one of disobedience, but Adam repented and was forgiven. (Qur’an, 20:122, 7:23, 2:37). Even an unintentional act of disobedience can bring negative consequences, to teach us that the laws of Allah are put in place for our benefit. So, it is easy to understand how the act could still lead to expulsion from the Garden. At the same time, we may note that Allah had already planned, at the time of creating mankind, to put him upon the earth. [Qur’an, 2:30]
Clarification of Moses’ manslaughter
Moses’ (peace and blessings be upon him) killing of an Egyptian [Qur’an, 28:15] occurred before his commissioning as a prophet. Furthermore, the killing was unintentional (i.e. it was manslaughter and not murder), and he was forgiven [Qur’an, 28:16].
Clarification of the Prophet’s Turning away from the Blind Man
Once, the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) was busy discussing Islam with some of the chiefs of Quraysh. It was clearly a crucial situation, for if they were to embrace Islam, it would mean an end to persecution, which could pave the way for wholesale acceptance of Islam by the common people. During this important dialogue, a blind Muslim named `Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum came to ask the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) a question. As is quite natural, the Prophet sallallahu `alayhe wa- sallam was annoyed at being disturbed from such critical business, and so he frowned and turned away from `Abdullah. It is worth noting that since `Abdullah was blind, he did not realize that this was the Prophet’s reaction. Yet, Allah made mention of this incident in the [Qur’an, 80:1-12] to show us that, when resources are limited, it is preferable to concentrate one’s propagation efforts on those who are more receptive to the message, even if they are insignificant, lowly people. However, it is not sinful to try to win over the important dignitaries.
Thus, we may conclude that everything which prophets did willfully was obligatory, recommended, or neutrally permissible. In reality, though, they were fulfilling an obligation even when they did neutrally permissible deeds, for they were showing the permissibility of these things to the ummah. We, too, can make our neutrally permissible deeds into sources of reward. For example, if we eat with the intention of strengthening our bodies for the worship of Allah, we will be rewarded for eating. If we sleep with the intention of resting ourselves in order to be able to worship Allah better, this will also count to our credit. Therefore, we should always be mindful, even of seemingly small things, for we do not know what sins of ours may cancel out our good deeds, or which little good deed may prove sufficient to tip the scales in our favor on the Day of Judgement. Those people who engage in neutrally permissible deeds without any intention, like mere animals, are clearly losing out on a great deal.
3. Delivery of the message
All the prophets conveyed the message of Allah to their people, as they were commanded. “O Messenger! Convey that which has been revealed to you from your Lord. And, if you do not do that, then you have not conveyed His message.” [Qur’an, 5:67] “Those who convey the messages of Allah, and fear Him and fear none but Allah. And Allah suffices as a reckoner.” [Qur’an, 33:39]. They did not hide anything, nor did they keep any part of the message secret for only a selected, private group. The message of Islam is a universal and public message, which applies to all people. In the Farewell Sermon, the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) called to Allah to bear witness that he had conveyed the message.
All of the prophets were very intelligent, intellectual people, for they had to clarify the truth to people in a way that left no excuse for disbelievers. If a prophet were to lose a religious debate, it would defeat the purpose of his having been sent. We see, for example, the incident that occurred between Prophet Abraham and a disbelieving king.
“[Abraham] said, ‘My Lord is the One Who gives life and death.'” [Qur’an, 2:258] The king, in his arrogance, summoned two prisoners, then ordered one of them to be killed and the other to be set free. “He said, ‘I give life and death.'”
When Prophet Abraham saw the king’s obstinacy, he presented a more potent argument, which could not possibly be rejected.
“Abraham said, ‘Indeed, Allah brings the sun from the east, so bring it from the west.’ Thus, the disbeliever was confounded.” [Qur’an, 2:258]
Consider also the exchange between Moses (peace be upon him) and Pharaoh. Pharaoh asked Moses, “Who, then, is the lord of you two, O Moses?” Moses replied, “Our Lord is He Who gave everything its nature and then guided [it].” This drove home the reality that Pharaoh could not create anything, and it is therefore understandable that Pharaoh should try to change the subject. “He said, ‘What, then, is the fate of the former generations?'” Moses (peace be upon him) very cleverly answers this question, but at the same time steers the conversation back to the main point, namely: belief in and worship of Allah. “[Moses] said : Knowledge of them is with my Lord in a record. My Lord neither errs nor forgets. [He is] the One Who has made the earth a cradle for you, and threaded roads for you therein, and sent down rain from the sky.” [Qur’an, 20:49-53] This incident contains a valuable lesson for us, which is that we should be careful not to be sidetracked into peripheral issues, such as polygamy, slavery or hijab, when we are conveying the message of Islam. The focus of our da`wah should be not be these side-issues, but rather the proper belief in Allah and the Last Day.
Having familiarized ourselves with the attributes of prophets, it should be evident that the opposites of these attributes: lying, sinning, concealment of the message and stupidity, can never be attributed to them. Similarly, it is not possible for them to be afflicted with any repulsive or contagious disease that would cause dispersion of people from around them, since this would not allow them to convey the message. However, any other mortal attributes that do not diminish from respectability or accessibility, such as hunger, thirst and non-repulsive diseases, are plausible for them, for they are, in the end, human beings.
 The only exception is in those matters that were specific to earlier times and have since been abrogated.